Now that I’ve read through my manuscript a few times I’m starting to notice some little things that I never necessarily thought about during my first (or second or third) pass. I’m going through and carefully adding more layers to all of the characters so that they talk and feel like real people – complicated and varied the way we all know real people to be. During this process I can’t help but notice what may or may not be a big issue: I never described what my main character looked like.
I tell it from the first person perspective, which is I think what caused the oversight. Everyone else in the story has an entrance scene or a moment of reflection where they are described. But the main character? No such opportunity.
Now, I took diligent notes during school, so I definitely have the tools to describe my protagonist – she could be looking in a mirror, for (clichéd) example. But now that I’m really thinking about it, I wonder if I need to bother.
I have often toyed with the idea of not really describing what people physically look like unless it reveals something about that person’s personality or the way that he or she is feeling during a particular scene or time period. It comes from my personal desire to imagine whatever I want when I’m reading – maybe I want to envision a character with curly red hair and a limp! What’s that, you say? He’s 6’5” and athletic with frosted tips? Well, now I’m all messed up. I find that when I read I like for the personality to speak for itself, in a way – to paint the physical appearance of the character on its own. The #1 most upsetting thing for me when I see movie versions of films is that the actors often don’t look like my mental image of the characters they're playing - it really throws me off. Especially when the author of the book paints a specific picture of what that person is supposed to look like. (I mean, short Ron Weasley? I know they casted him when he was like eight years old, but still. I’ll never be over that one.) So I guess while I was writing I just didn’t get around to describing Grace, my main character.
And I’m thinking that it doesn’t really bother me. What she looks like just doesn’t matter. Not really. Maybe the little things – nails bitten down way too far, hair in desperate need of a trim, etc. – can be mentioned as manifestations of her anxiety and depression. But the color of her hair? Her height, weight, facial features? I don’t mind leaving that up to the imagination. I don’t mind everyone having their own little version of her.
So the question I’m hoping you will all help me with this week is this: Do you feel strongly one way or the other? Have you noticed the physical descriptions in your reading? If you were to read something without a description of the narrator, would you be distracted by that? Or confused? Let me know what you’re thinking in the comments below!
Cait Levin is the Community Manager at She Writes. You can read more of her blog (when she stops watching so much Dawson’s Creek and actually writes more of a blog) here.